For safer CMS schools, the answer may be less security, not more

Parents walk to pick up their children outside Butler High School after a school shooting last month.
Parents walk to pick up their children outside Butler High School after a school shooting last month. The Charlotte Observer

As the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system grapples with guns on campus and a tragic shooting death, and as districts across North Carolina contemplate adding more police officers to their hallways, perhaps school officials should consider this counter-intuitive question: What if the answer to school safety isn’t more security, but less?

A handful of urban districts around the country have concluded just that and reduced or eliminated police presence on school campuses. Their decisions were at least somewhat supported this month by a Brookings Institution report that suggested NC schools aren’t necessarily safer when they add more police to the school environment.

The report, from Howard University associate professor Kenneth Alonzo Anderson, examined the effectiveness of a 2013 NC law that provided $2 for every $1 spent to hire or train School Resource Officers (SROs) in selected elementary and middle schools. Alonzo found that districts receiving additional SRO funding experienced no reductions in the 16 disciplinary acts that must be reported to the state, which include assault, drug use and possession of weapons.

Most interesting: Anderson also found that while disciplinary outcomes in North Carolina, as a whole, improved over time, those improvements weren’t statistically related to increased SRO funding, but to factors such as academic achievement at schools.

The research dovetails with a national movement to limit or eliminate police presence in schools. Advocates argue that such presence results in uneven discipline, with research showing black students being arrested at higher rates than whites. Similarly, research shows that student arrests and court referrals increase when SROs are on school campuses. That could be because officers catch behavior that otherwise would go unnoticed, but it’s also possible that SROs criminalize some behavior that might be dealt with differently by school officials.

Advocates for eliminating SROs also point to dozens of incidents across the country in which school police officers assaulted students for minor transgressions or behaviors that did not merit a physical response. If minority communities have little reason to trust police, activists argue, why should their children trust officers on campus?

We’re uncertain about that argument, because SROs also serve roles on campus beyond discipline, including mentoring students and coaching sports teams. But it’s hard to ignore evidence that beefed up police presence — along with other measures such as metal detectors — make students feel less safe and can negatively affect classroom performance.

Does that mean CMS, which has SROs at every high school, middle school and K-8 school, should get rid of those officers? Not necessarily. But CMS and other school districts can and should re-examine exactly what roles SROs should perform. For example, districts might consider curtailing police officer contact with students so that less significant incidents don’t turn into criminal cases, and instead shift officers’ focus to macro issues such as preventing weapons on campus and protecting against mass shootings and threats.

Charlotte and other municipalities, which pay for SROs through their police department budgets, might also explore whether at least some of the money might be better used on personnel who can proactively deal with student conflict and behavior, such as guidance counselors, social workers and mental health professionals. Those steps might not only provide for a better student experience, but a safer one.